An elephant in thailand is showered by a man while a women takes his photo

Thailand, Elephants and Tourism

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Asian elephants are native to Thailand, but far too many of them are trapped in captivity. Here’s what World Animal Protection Thailand want you to know before you visit.

Elephant experiences are a popular tourist activity for travellers visiting Thailand. Let’s look at what these experiences mean for the captive animals involved and what we can do to improve their well-being.

What you need to know about Thailand elephants

Asian elephants are native to Thailand, but far too many of them are trapped in captivity. World Animal Protection Thailand strives to end the exploitation of captive elephants in the tourism industry.

Do elephants roam free in Thailand?

Thailand is home to approximately 15% of the 52,000 Asian elephants currently living in the wild. Asian elephants are an endangered species, and between 3100 and 3600 can be found in 69 protected areas in Thailand.

How many captive elephants are there in Thailand?

Wild elephants in Thailand are outnumbered by those kept in captivity.

Around 2798 captive elephants live in tourism venues across the country. To put this in context, nearly 75% of captive elephants are used for tourist entertainment in Asia.

Are elephants treated well in Thailand?

Unfortunately, no.

We assessed 3837 elephants in 357 venues across Asia and found that 63% were living in severely inadequate conditions. When not performing, they were restrained by short chains in noisy, dirty conditions, had poor diets, and received very limited medical care.

Training elephants to perform tricks and activities for tourists is both unnatural and harmful. ‘Trainers’ use cruel, punishment-based training, including hitting them with sticks or sharp metal objects.

Elephants are often kept in isolation. Elephants are very social, so separating young elephants from their mothers causes severe trauma, especially when they are then restrained with chains to exhaust them while they become used to being isolated. This can lead to symptoms of PTSD.

nearly 75% of captive elephants in Asia are used for tourismResearch from our Elephants not Commodities  Report

Why is elephant entertainment tourism in Thailand a problem?

Elephants used for tourism in Thailand fuels the cruelty we’ve just mentioned. Companies train elephants to fulfil the demand for elephant experiences and close encounters with these wild animals. 

Elephant tourism also makes elephants a valuable commodity. Elephant breeders can charge large sums for each calf. This is a form of wildlife farming, where these wild animals are seen solely in terms of profit with no thought for their wellbeing.

Although the welfare of these elephants is our primary concern, captive elephant experiences also pose a significant danger to humans. More people are killed or severely injured by captive elephants than any other captive wild animal.

Currently, one person is killed on average for each male elephant being held in captivity. As well as these direct killings, close contact with captive elephants can pass dangerous diseases such as tuberculosis to tourists and handlers.

Where to see elephants in Thailand

Visiting captive elephant experiences is clearly not an ethical or responsible act. Thankfully, it is possible to see elephants in Thailand in a humane, sustainable setting that prioritises their wellbeing.

Where possible, we always advocate seeing wild animals in the wild, where they are free to roam and act in natural ways. If not, you can still find elephant sanctuaries that put the elephants' needs first and give them the freedom to be elephants.

We want to help you identify genuinely responsible elephant venues. Here are some things to avoid, and what to look for.

@worldanimalprotection If you love elephants, make sure you see them in the wild or at genuine sanctuaries that treat them with compassion and respect. #elephants #wildlife#gooddays #ResponsibleTravel #EndWildlifeFarming ♬ original sound - World Animal Protection 🌎

Elephant Tourism Dos and Don't

Don’t: Assume that venues with ‘sanctuary’ in the name are responsible

Many exploitative venues will describe themselves as sanctuaries, rescue centres or other positive terms.

Don’t: Touch elephants

Elephants won’t naturally move close enough to humans to be touched. If you’re allowed to touch an elephant, it means that the animal has experienced brutal training methods for the amusement of tourists.

Don’t: Play with baby elephants

Baby elephants can be a huge draw for tourists, being both majestic and incredibly cute. However, being separated from their mother is incredibly traumatic for young elephants. 

No responsible elephant venue will engage in captive breeding, keep babies away from their mother, or allow guests to touch babies.

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Do: Enjoy natural behaviour

Wild animals need to be free to act naturally. Wild elephants spend their time walking long distances, eating, and socialising with other elephants. Look for venues that give them the space and freedom to do this.

Do: Prioritise safety

Elephants are large wild animals and can be dangerous. Responsible venues keep plenty of distance between elephants and visitors. In particular, elephant hooks should only ever be used in extreme circumstances.

Pearl from the Elephant Valley Project was a 2023 Finalist for our Wild Animal Unique Personality award

What is the most humane elephant sanctuary in Thailand?

To help you decide where you can appreciate elephants in Thailand, we’ve compiled a list of the most responsible elephant sanctuaries we’ve found in our extensive research.

How to stop elephant abuse in Thailand

Elephant abuse is widespread in Thailand, but it isn’t inevitable. Join us in stopping the exploitation of captive elephants. Together, we can make a real difference to these animals.

World Animal Protection Thailand is working to reduce the number of captive elephants used in commercial tourism. One of the best ways to do this is to decrease the demand for elephants as entertainment. 

They are also striving to improve conditions for the elephants currently living in captivity and their caretakers. We can’t undo the cruel training they’ve experienced, but we can give them environments that fulfil their current needs and avoid traumatising them further.

Some venues are already making these changes. ChangChill transitioned from elephant rides and experiences to observation-only, elephant friendly tourism in 2019 and is thriving. Following Giants took the same, elephant-first path. 

Support our work to protect Thailand's elephants

Captive elephants in Thailand are suffering, forced to live in unnatural and traumatic conditions. The elephant venues moving towards elephant friendly, responsible tourism prove that it doesn't need to be this way.

Join us in protecting Asian elephants in captivity.

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